Ana Mariscal, a junior at North Salem High School, in her JROTC uniform for a hearing at the Oregon Capitol on Jan. 14, 2019 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

When Ana Mariscal went with her mother to Tijuana over Christmas to visit family, she never imagined she’d be making the return journey alone.

But just after New Year’s Day 2018, Mariscal found herself on a bus bound for Salem with no money and nowhere to live.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials stopped her mom, who had a valid tourist visa, from crossing back into the U.S., saying she’d been working illegally. Mariscal, then a sophomore, and her mother agreed it was best for the teen to continue her schooling in Salem, even if it meant being on her own.

She called her North Salem High School JROTC instructor, Ret. Lt. Col. Dwight Morse, to let him know why she was late coming back from winter break.

 “It was a really, really scary experience,” she said.

Mariscal is one of nearly 1,200 Salem-Keizer students who were homeless at some point last school year. It was once a subject of shame, but lately, the 16-year-old has been open about her circumstance.

“This is more common than it seems,” she said.

Mariscal testified in January in front of the Oregon House ​Human Services and Housing Committee, poised and polished in her JROTC uniform.

There, she urged legislators to increase funding for youth homeless shelters and other services like Taylor’s House, the Salem teen shelter where she now lives.

“It was a weight off my shoulders to find Taylor’s House,” she told the committee.

Ana Mariscal speaks in front of the Oregon House Committee on Human Services and Housing on Jan. 14, 2019 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Mariscal had a long journey to the temporary stability she found. Born in Los Angeles, she, her mother and younger brother moved back and forth between Mexico and the United States many times during her childhood as her single mother tried to find work.

Even with her mother working full-time in Mexico, “there was times where we didn’t eat anything but soup and water,” she said. Powdered milk was a treat.

They moved to Salem when she was in middle school, joining relatives who were already in the area.

Mariscal was used to violent neighborhoods in Tijuana and Los Angeles, where it wasn’t unusual to wake up to gunshots in the middle of the night. Salem’s relative calm was a shock.

“It was different, quiet, calm. There was no sign of violence,” she said.

Though her visa didn’t allow her to work legally, Mariscal’s mother was able to earn enough in the fields to pay for a modest studio apartment for them.

Mariscal sometimes struggled with behavior in school until she got involved in JROTC, which she said helped her improve her grades and behavior. In the program, students learn skills like emergency preparedness in class and practice military drills.

After the Christmas trip to Mexico, she leaned on her instructors and other JROTC families for help. She briefly lived with an extended family, but left after a conflict and bounced between a few JROTC families before finding Taylor’s House.

Through everything, she said JROTC helped keep her focused and engaged. On school days, she gets up at 4:30 a.m. to be ready for practice at 6.

“We’re a family at ROTC. We’re together. We know that everybody’s going through something,” she said.

Morse said Mariscal’s call from the border came as a shock, but he worked to help Mariscal as she settled into life by herself in Salem.

He spoke to Mariscal’s mother through a translator shortly after she returned to Salem. From that conversation, he said it’s clear her mother misses her, but hopes Mariscal will have a better life by continuing her education in Salem.

“She wants what’s best for her daughter,” he said.

Morse and Ret. 1st Sgt. Jim Wagner said Mariscal can be “strong-willed” and sometimes stubborn, but they’ve seen her mature, especially since living at Taylor’s House.

There, staff are working to find her a more permanent home to finish high school and giving her a mix of freedom and stability Morse said is good for her.

Wagner said one effect is she’s more comfortable speaking out about her life. Before, she was “very guarded,” not wanting to show weakness.

“She’s very proud of how she’s been able to fight through this, but it wasn’t always that way,” he said.

Mariscal is also working to get more involved in the community by joining the United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley board. A past high school board member, Raul Marquez, worked to raise money to create Taylor’s House, where she now lives.

Youth homelessness is a growing problem locally and across Oregon. Salem-Keizer recently hit a seven-year high in recorded homeless students, and saw an increase in those like Mariscal who are “unaccompanied,” without a parent or adult guardian.

Mariscal said she used to resist thinking of herself as “homeless” since she has a parent. But she’s embraced it and hopes she can show people being a homeless teen doesn’t look like they might expect.

“Homeless is just not being able to provide for yourself,” she said.

Mariscal knows she wants to enlist in the Army after high school, earning her GI Bill benefits so she can attend college. After that, her career plans are in flux. Sometimes, she wants to be a teacher, and sometimes a police officer.

Mostly, her goal is to help others.

“This girl shoots for the stars. There’s nothing small about what she wants,” Wagner said.

Her other goal is to someday own her own home.

“I want to wake up every morning and say, ‘This is mine,’” she said.

News tip? Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.